Posted by Pratyusha Pramanik
The procreative role of women has been celebrated and glorified in any heteronormative society. Mothers are assigned a significant role in constructing the worldview of their children and the citizens of the nation. Through stories, songs, lullabies and bedtime stories, they help their children create a multidimensional identity. Patriarchy has always glorified motherhood as the most prized position for women. Indian mothers have always been looked through the lens of sacrifice and endurance. This article tries to see how the characters portrayed by Vidya Balan have always tried to challenge this hypocrisy and set their brand of motherhood that looks at them not just as mothers, but also as women who have their dreams, desires and struggles. Be it playing a single mother in Heyy Babyy, or mothering a child with progeria in Paa, or using the trope of pregnancy in Kahaani, or as the ‘normal’ housewife mother in Tumhari Sulu and most recently in the character of Shakuntala Devi. Vidya Balan’s journey into the realms of motherhood has been very subtle yet deterministic.
My article will look into Vidya Balan’s movies like Paa, Kahaani, Tumhari Sulu, Shakuntala Devi and others to look at how the Balan Brand of motherhood is a corollary of the idea of the ‘all-sacrificing’ and ‘all-suffering’ mother that has been celebrated over the years in Indian cinema.
Both in Heyy Babyy and Paa Balan takes up the role of a single mother. She stepped into motherly roles from early days of her career. In Paa she plays the role of a gynaecologist, Vidya, who mothers a child with progeria. Vidya’s mother too had single-handedly brought her up. Vidya decides to become a mother despite her boyfriend denying in responsibility. The absent father Amol, played by Abhishek Bacchan is a young and emerging politician. He washes his hands off the pregnancy by asking Vidya to abort the child and focus on her career like he intends to do. Vidya, with the help of her mother finishes her studies and also takes care of the special needs of her child. In the very first scene of the movie we are told that she performs ‘unnecessary sacrifice’ for the child. The movie however celebrates how the child meets the absent father and becomes instrumental in uniting his parents. Vidya as the single mother does not hesitate to clarify that one does not become a father by simply lending sperms. Vidya as a character was ahead of its times and did not get the attention and depth that she deserves. A single working mother taking care of a child with disability is not an everyday woman, she is strong and resilient. She is career-driven but she is not cruel or bitter. The movie however waters itself down as it chooses to uphold the equilibrium of a heteronormative family by calling a truce, and decides to call itself ‘Paa’. The title of the movie emphasises the importance of the role of a father in patriarchy even when he is absent for the better half of the child’s life. Balan here deserves appreciation for her choice of a role that is ahead of her times.
The movie is looked as a milestone in the history of films with woman protagonist because of its commercial success. Throughout the movie, we see Vidya Balan’s Vidya Bagchi struggling in a male-dominated bureaucratic set up to find her husband. As a pregnant woman, she garners sympathy and Rana the young police officer is enamoured enough to risk his job to help her. She appears vulnerable but is resilient. She knows ‘No one doubts a pregnant woman’. So the officers think she could be used to open locks, restart cases and decode computers which otherwise are not accessible. Vidya’s pregnancy here is not a burden but her powerful weapon against the patriarchal setup. Her ‘vidya,’ i.e. knowledge of computers help her waddle around a city that continuously tries to deceive her, mistaking her for a helpless woman waddling around the city. In the song ‘Aami Shotti Bolchi’ we are told of the vibrant city of Kolkata, which has a double role – ‘Strong hain powerful hain, phir bhi lachaar hain’ (‘It is strong and powerful yet helpless’) and it holds true for the pregnant protagonist portrayed by Vidya Balan too. Bob Biswas’s friendly threat, Khan’s attempt to petrify her or Milan Damji trying to outwit her are ways the society underestimate her strength and ability. Rana along with the makers of the movie attribute her with the tag of a Devi, staging the climax during Dashomi or Dushera but the very act of using her false belly as self-defence is an act of breaking the stereotype of the ‘all-suffering’ mother. She victimises herself to arrive at the truth. Her blending into the crowd of women wearing white and red saree shows how there’s a Vidya Bagchi in all women.
Vidya Balan rewrites the narrative of the ‘all-sacrificing’ and ‘all-suffering’ mother once again when she portrays the role of Sulu, here she takes up the job of a late-night RJ. Not only does the show’s timing upset her routine as a housewife, its content becomes a bone of contention among her family members. Sulu soon soars high in the sky as her personal life takes a toll. Her son is expelled from his school because of misbehaviour. Sulu is blamed for failing to be a responsible mother and fingers are pointed at how her choices have jeopardised the family peace and equilibrium. Initially, she manages to keep going despite the turbulence, but she gets a reality check when their son goes missing.
By the end of the movie, Vidya Balan’s Sulu comes to a pragmatic compromise that brings a healthy balance in her relationship with her husband Ashok and their son. The film is a commentary about the struggles working mothers face in maintaining the work-life balance, the ending, though overtly optimistic, shows Ashok leaving his job and starting a business with his wife. Sulu does not sacrifice her dreams; she tries to accommodate her husband within her dreams (and not accommodate herself in his dreams).
Vidya Balan’s Shakuntala Devi is as much about motherhood as it is about mathematics. We see Shakuntala Devi from the eyes of her daughter. As she juggles her personal life and numbers, she fails to maintain balance. Her love for her daughter surpasses her love for numbers. Her relationship with her parents clouds her parenting skills. The conflict between the mother-daughter duo is because of their inability to see each other as individuals and not through the lens of age-old customs and traditions. Indian parenting comes with the rulebook of duties towards children and parents; the great epics, folktales and the popular media perpetuate the ideology further. Unlike western countries, parents and children heavily depend on each other; mothers shoulder the responsibility of keeping families together through her sacrifices and silences. “She was an earning member for her family from a young age. So, she did not know the difference between men and women. She was instinctively feminist and instinctively progressive,” observed Anu Menon.
Shakuntala the child prodigy realises the imbalance in society very fast in her life. She develops contempt for her father and hatred for her mother. When she becomes a mother, she smothers her child with attention, however soon enough realises that she is not just a mother, she also happens to be the world-famous mathemagician. Her daughter cannot accept a mother who deviates from the idea of the ‘normal’ mother that society has featured before her. Vidya Balan’s Shakuntala Devi is shown as being brought down from the pedestal as a working mother who is never enough. When Anu herself becomes a mother and starts working, she realises how her mother was never wrong. Patriarchy mostly uses women to subvert each other, with them rarely realising how they have been puppets in the hands of society. They become instrumental in imposing gender roles and criticising anyone that dares to be different.
Nicole’s lawyer in Marriage Story very rightly observes- ‘We can accept an imperfect dad. The idea of a good father was only invented 30 years ago. Before that, fathers were expected to be silent and absent and unreliable and selfish. We love them for their fallibilities, but people absolutely don’t accept those failings in mothers. We don’t accept it structurally and we don’t accept it spiritually. Mary, Mother of Jesus, is perfect. She’s a virgin who gives birth, unwaveringly supports her child and holds his dead body when he’s gone. And the dad isn’t there.’
Both Sulu and Shakuntala are made accountable for failing to perform their duty as a sincere and loving mother. While Sulu undergoes the guilty mother syndrome because of her family’s judgment, Shakuntala herself feels guilty about her choices. Later on, her daughter furthers her guilt when she blames her for being a selfish mother. The struggles that each generation has to go through are never the same, but the pattern of subordination and atrocities remains similar. Shakuntala has the economic and societal privilege to walk out of her marriage to perform the role of the mother that suited her stature and career choices. Sulu, although financially independent, does not have the privilege to break out of her marriage, so she makes it work through her business start-up. Vidya having lost both her husband and her unborn child makes motherhood quite literally the shield to avenge their death. We have seen women taking up arms to avenge the death of their loved ones, but using one’s vulnerability and weakness as armour makes Vidya Bagchi stand out.
Speaking about her choice of gender-focused films, Vidya Balan had said – ‘It’s about finding my answers and thinking aloud’, she goes on to call herself ‘a work-in-progress feminist’. The mothers that Vidya Balan play do not adhere to the rulebook of motherhood that patriarchy hands down to every woman. They falter, they struggle and find a way to achieve their goals and follow their dreams, desires and happiness. Celebrating mothers who deviate from the norms on screen helps mothers off screen to make choices towards their happiness. It helps them fight their guilty mother syndrome.
Pratyusha is a Research Scholar and Teaching Assistant in the Department of Humanistic Studies, IIT (BHU), Varanasi. She is interested in Post Colonial Resistance and Protest Movements, Gender and Film Studies. She can be found on Facebook and Instagram.